(First published in The Dominion Post, October 6.)
As is well known, the MMP electoral system was created to ensure, as far as possible, that no party ended up wielding absolute power.
So far you’d have to say it has worked exactly as intended. In the eight elections since New Zealand adopted MMP, no one party has won an absolute majority. They have all had to compromise and negotiate with smaller coalition partners.
Now we find ourselves in the same position again. It should be familiar by now, yet something seems not quite right. What could it be?
Oh, that’s right – Winston Peters, the 7.5 Percent Man, is back in the mix, and making the most of his intoxicating moment in the spotlight.
He said he was out of phone range when Bill English called last Sunday. But what sort of party leader goes bush, leaving his phone unattended, when he’s in the hot seat and the country is waiting for a government to be formed?
Then there was his excuse that he was waiting for the 384,000 special votes to come in, as if these had the potential to skew the election night result by such an order of magnitude that any preliminary negotiations with other parties would be futile.
Peters wanted us to think he was delaying showing his hand out of respect for democracy, but I don’t think anyone was fooled. We’ve seen it all before.
If he truly respected democracy, he would acknowledge that his party pulled a measly 7.5 per cent of the vote and stop behaving like some sort of vainglorious potentate from Berzerkistan. Heck, he couldn’t even retain his own seat.
But this is Peters we’re talking about. The “h” word that comes between “humidify” and “hummingbird” in most dictionaries apparently doesn’t exist in the edition on Peters’ bookshelf.
Perhaps MMP works best when you have politicians who are prepared to be conciliatory, to compromise and to make concessions. The Germans seem to manage it.
Unfortunately, Peters is not one of those politicians. Bluster and demagoguery, rather than consensus, is his default setting.
Politically, he’s a living fossil: a relic of Muldoonism, with all its bullying, divisiveness and ad hoc state interventionism. From the time he first entered Parliament in 1978, his career has been marked by fractiousness and petulance. He is a settler of scores and a bearer of grudges.
Some of his policy ideas – reinstating the old Forest Service, introducing a police “flying squad”, legislating to ensure free-to-air coverage of major sporting events – appear designed to exploit the nostalgic yearning of his ageing supporters for New Zealand the way they remember it.
Peters is a political Doctor Who, inviting us to join him in the Tardis for a trip back to a simpler time when an all-powerful state pretended it could solve complex problems with the pull of a lever. Look where that got us.
I said at the start of this column that MMP is working exactly as intended. Does this mean it’s a good system? Not at all. It’s a dog that replaced a turkey.
We weren’t sure at the time that we wanted a dog. All we knew is that we desperately wanted to get rid of the turkey, and a highly motivated lobbying campaign convinced us – by a less than overwhelming majority, incidentally – that the dog would do the job better.
And so we ended up with a system in which a vain and egotistical politician whose party got 7.5 per cent of the vote determines who the next government will be; and where every solemn pledge made during the election campaign is now up for negotiation in a secret process that voters have no control over or input into.
We could, however, do a few things to make the best of a bad situation. For one thing, the media could stop stoking Peters’ already rampant ego by not giving him daily opportunities to grandstand. And let’s stop treating the post-election guessing game as some sort of diverting spectator sport or reality TV show. We’re talking about the future of the country, for heaven’s sake.
Oh, and here’s another suggestion that might negate the Peters problem altogether.
You’d think that if any party “got” MMP, it would be the Greens. But at the very suggestion of a deal with National, they clutch at their skirts like startled virgins.
Well, Labour has never invited them into bed. If promiscuity is the price for getting some runs on the board, perhaps they should forget about virtue and get their knickers off.